JoAnne Werbrouck, August 20th, 2016
BB: Hello, this is Bree Boettner with the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. Today is August 20. We are in Detroit, Michigan and I am sitting down with JoAnne Werbrouck. Thank you so much for sitting down with us, JoAnne. The first question we’re going to ask you is where and when you were born.
JW: Alright. March 31, 1948. My parents lived in Detroit. The hospital was Cottage Hospital which is in Grosse Pointe. My big claim to fame in Grosse Pointe: I was born there.
BB: Who were your parents? What are their names and what occupations did they have?
JW: My father was Michael Hoffenberger. He at that time, I’m not quite sure whether he was going to barber school? He went to the Detroit Barber College. When I was born he probably was but then I know he was also working at the Detroit – there was a Marine Hospital on the river somewhere around where Park Davis was on the river – as a boiler operator. He eventually became a barber. That’s one reason we moved to St. Clair Shores. My mother, Jane Elizabeth Grant Hoffenberger, was born in New York, was a graduate of Cornell. She was a captain in the Army in the Public Health Service. She opened St. John Moross Hospital as the head of dietary there. So that happened, like, in the Fifties though by the time that was. So at the time I was born she was a homemaker and, as I say, he probably was at barber college or had recently graduated. I don’t know which.
BB: So you have any siblings?
JW: One brother.
BB: Older or younger?
JW: Younger. John. He lives in St. Clair Shores. He wasn’t down here at any point or time then.
BB: So you were born in the city of Detroit. What do you remember your neighborhood being like growing up?
JW: It was a new home but it was a small brick bungalow house and the homes around were larger duplexes and I didn’t go to school there at all. I can’t remember the local church name because I didn’t stay there that long, I guess.
BB: When did you move?
JW: Let’s see, it was 1956 that we moved to St. Clair Shores. They had purchased property and built a home there and my father opened a barber shop there around the corner so that he could walk to the barber shop. So he was the proprietor of the barber shop and by then she was either getting ready to open the hospital or it had opened. I don’t know exactly. He had a shop on Woodward for a while before that. They’ve passed away and I recently came across the paperwork of the address – I didn’t even know there was such a thing – and I have the original paper that’s signed by Mayor Cobo. I’m going oh my god! Nobody even knew who Cobo was – what is Cobo Hall? Who is it named after? And we tried to find it but you go by Woodward so fast and there really wasn’t that exact address so it’s probably long gone, the building.
BB: Wow, that’s still a pretty cool piece of history. Okay, so you guys moved to St. Clair Shores, what was the community like growing up? What schools did you attend in that area?
JW: I went there from kindergarten so it was, I guess, how many kids or wherever. So first I went to this school, Beechwood. Went there until fourth grade and then they were – I don’t know if probably there were so many kids then that probably it was an overflow thing, but we ended up for the fourth grade only in the basement of a junior high school for school. So physically I was in this building, Chippewa Junior High School. And then after that at fifth grade, the local Catholic school, which was right across Harper from where we lived and started a fifth grade. I went there and that first year I went there, they had started forth grade so my brother started with me. So I went there until eighth grade and then to the local high school because after that I told them I was not having any more Catholic school so that was the end of that. So then I went to Lakeview which was a public school.
BB: And what year did you graduate from high school?
BB: So did you go to college?
JW: No, I didn’t want any part of that either. But I thought I was interested in travel, the field of travel, but I never airplane traveled and I of course was too short to be a flight attendant anyway so I went to what I guess you would call a trade school in Minneapolis. And I left there in November of ‘66 and that taught you airline reservations – it was run by an airline – airline reservations, ticketing. They did air traffic control but that was only open to boys. So I went through that and then thought I’d come back. At that time Detroit had Washington Boulevard. That’s where all the airlines were, the ticket offices, the reservation offices, so I thought I would work for an airline. I came back and I had an interview with Delta Airlines which was, again, on Washington Boulevard and got in there and it was like this huge, empty space with cubicles and I thought, I don’t want to be part of this. I want a desk. So I didn’t take that. A while later, a short time later actually, my mother saw an ad in the paper for Hilton reservations at Hilton Hotels and I went down for that and they had desks and I liked that so I took that job and that was my first job ever. I went in there in November ‘66 and it was a small office with only five of us there but we made reservations around the world. Because of the auto industry it was a bigger volume office. We were open from 8:00 in the morning until 7:30 at night and we took calls not just from the state of Michigan; they had WATS [Wide-Area Telephone System] lines then where the people could use. That was a toll-free. We took part of Ohio, we did Windsor, part of Ontario. So it was a larger office because we had an office in about every state.
BB: Where was your office located?
JW: We were in the Hilton Hotel, which is now gone, on Grand Circus Park. And me being the new one, my hours were from 11:00 to 7:30 at night. It took a bus, I had a brand new car but I didn’t want to use that. I took a bus to and from work and that was getting me to work.
BB: What was the city like when you first started working down here? Because you said it was ‘66.
JW: Right. Going back to being a child, with my mother being in the hospital, she’d have every other weekend off on schedule. My father did a lot with us. He brought us down here a lot to the Historical Museum, to the DIA [Detroit Institute of Arts], to Belle Isle, to the Ford Auditorium. So I knew those venues but as far as shopping or anything, I’d never been to Detroit. By then Northland had opened. That was a big shopping center so my mother buzzed out there so we’d go out there. But never been down here for that. So that was all new other than seeing Hudson’s at the parade. So I got to experience that because working at Grand Circus Park, on your lunch hour I had an hour so I could walk over to Crawley’s or to Hudson’s or Winkelman’s, that was a big women’s store on Woodward. I could go to those shops and be back in time, grab something for lunch and be back. There was a – no that’s not there – big Kresge Five and Dime, at the time, on Woodward. A lot of action there. That was multiple floors. That was a huge store. There were really no parks other than Grand Circus Park but you really didn’t have people, I guess at lunch it was too busy, people moving in and out. There was an underground garage there. When I eventually started driving to work, I parked under there.
BB: How long did you work with Hilton?
JW: I was with them for 20 years.
JW: But we moved in – I don’t remember the exact. I’m thinking it was maybe the late Seventies we moved out to Troy so we left here. It didn’t matter because we were the reservation service so we didn’t have to be in a hotel and at that time then, the Troy Hilton opened across the street from us anyway so that was alright.
BB: So that kind of takes us, because you got your first job in ‘66, that kind of leads right into the events that happened in July of 1967. So, my first question for that is how did you first hear about what was going on on the 23 of July?
JW: I think primarily television. We also had a neighbor across the street that owned a business and he was on Woodward almost to Highland Park, I’d say. And what he had was a fleet of automobiles. I can remember Cadillacs, always him having Cadillacs and how he got people I don’t know. But he would get people to drive them to destinations like California or Arizona and then they’d fly back. And I don’t know if they did that one their own or what he paid them to get there but that was his business. So I remember him coming over and telling, because they knew that I had gotten that job. And I don’t remember what day of the week that all started –
BB: It started on a Saturday night into Sunday.
JW: Okay, so it started over a weekend. So I was probably totally oblivious to the whole thing other than them saying that. Then my father right away, because I was 19 years old, flipping out because he was down here when they had he called it a race riot in the Thirties?
JW: Because he was in the Coast Guard and witnessed some of that, too. I remember him talking about dragging for bodies and things, so he didn’t want me to come down here at all. Our main office was in New York City so they, I think, didn’t know what was going on and the magnitude from what they saw on television. I don’t remember if I got a phone call or how they contacted me or whatever but my supervisor lived in Windsor and she was a Canadian citizen so she couldn’t get over here so there was a scramble about that and how we were going to staff the office and the hotel itself could do some of our work but of course they wouldn’t have access to our records and reservations and people cancelling and so on. It took her, if I remember, days before she got here. Again, I was working until 7:30 and nobody knew the situation. It was mostly this way but what was it like down there? So my neighbor told my parents he’d take me to and from work, I just would have to go when he could be at his business so we did that for a couple days and then things started to get back to more normal where I was taking the bus again.
BB: So, Monday morning, the 25  you went back to work? So Monday morning you were at work?
JW: No, I wasn’t and the funny thing about that is I only know that because I wasn’t engaged at that point but we knew we were getting married. So we were going to plan a wedding but I was starting to work and he worked afternoons at the time and my mother working so she’s going, well, you’re off and I’m off so let’s go look for a venue. So that’s how I chose my wedding day. It ended up being the 26 of July in 1968 so that’s how that happened otherwise I don’t know when I would have gotten married. So I wasn’t working that day but I think I went back the next day. That might have been the first day.
BB: Did it affect the operations of your job at all? The event? Because you mentioned there was cancellations?
JW: Not at all. Just people, everybody wanted to know what was going on and were we exposed to anything and what was it like down here and blah blah blah? But that maybe was like a pocket over there and all I know is that when we got here, he dropped me of right in front of the hotel and here’s this tank in the middle of Grand Circus Park and there were a lot of I don’t know if that was militia people or who those were. They were young guys, though, all young. Reserve, probably Reserve.
BB: The National Guard, yeah.
JW: Yeah. And I was struck by that that they all had guns and everything but they were just walking around kind of nonchalantly and –
BB: Were you ever approached by them?
JW: Yeah, talked to a few people. As they say, they didn’t seem upset particularly but, again, I don’t know what even happened. You never saw windows, like in the hotel were there were shops, windows weren’t broken, nobody came this far for any of that. But all anybody kept saying to anybody else was why would they wreck everything when that’s where they lived? Why would they loot their own peoples’ businesses? It was like, you couldn’t understand that. It’s still like that with Missouri with the looting and all that recently? Why do people do that? That doesn’t make any sense to me either. But I was the typical, suburbanite kid back then. I’d never seen a black person until I think I was seven. And when my mother, going to the hospital to visit her and introduced to her, I can remember this, to her assistant who was a young black woman, attractive black woman, and I thought, Why are her hands white on this side? Why are they black on this side? [laughs] What is that about? But I never asked anybody because I thought there must be a reason for it. As I say, being then with my husband with the union, sometimes we’d be in a room, we’d be the only white people but it was like by then you were accustomed, you learned. Especially with the union how strong everything is with the blacks in the union. It was a whole new experience there for sure.
BB: So going back just a little bit just so we have some context for the audio recording, you got married in ‘68 and what was your husband’s name?
BB: And what was his job? So that we can get it on record.
JW: Then he was working for Chrysler. He worked for Chrysler his entire life, same plant which is the Conner-Jefferson plant where they make the Jeeps in Detroit. He was in Detroit, too. And he started out on the line as teenager. I think he started when he was 16 or something when he went in there and went to school in between. And then we were trying to decide what was he going to do; what was he going to be? And he was leaning toward pluming which in the plant is a pipefitter position. It’s a skilled position so you had to wait for that to open up to take training. And then he knew about the tuition refund program so he started going to Macomb Community College with Chrysler paying for that and ended up with a degree from Wayne [State University] in Labor and Industrial Relations. All paid by Chrysler. It was a wonderful opportunity so shortly after that he was back down here and we were back down here, too, going to different venues with his class and things because he’d be going at night. But he eventually got into the union, became a steward on the different shifts and then when he got to days, steward on days and he became the committeeman. He also was on their boards and their chairman and he had all kinds of positions there. I was quite proud of what he ended up being – with my help, of course. [laughs]
BB: [laughs] Behind every great man there’s a better woman, isn’t that the saying?
JW: Exactly. But during that time the plant was still open. They worked more in a skeleton-type crew though so production may have been down. I don’t really remember that but the skilled people would be on a skeleton crew.
BB: So you guys, after the events in ‘67 you and your husband, or then fiancé, it never deterred you from coming back downtown?
JW: No, no.
BB: Through the Sixties and Seventies, did you see any changes in the city of Detroit at all having worked down here?
JW: Well, I think it really started going down and then there was the talk around that time shortly after about casinos and revitalizing that way and we always went to the Tiger games. So we were always at the ballpark, the old Tiger Stadium. Talk about a new stadium, talk about this, talk about that. And there wasn’t a great deal of input. People just didn’t really want to come down here. When I started taking the bus again and I ran into, again shortly after this time, a group of young men on the bus. And you’re talking because, you know, they’re cute and you’re young so they ended up being with the Peace Corps and they were coming down here and they were going to be staying at this Hotel Tuller which was around the corner from the Hilton. Kind of a cheap hotel, but they were going to work more clean up, like Cass Clean Up, and food distribution down there but they were all excited about it and I remember thinking about it, thinking that that was really a neat thing. Of course, knowing about President Kennedy, that this was a good thing to have and they ended up knowing a few people I knew from school. So you knew, again, they were your same age and they were actually doing something to help and not really getting paid for it. But yeah, things just kept getting worse and I think that’s one reason that they moved us out of here. Troy was building at the time, a lot of businesses going to Troy for headquarters out of Detroit and that’s funny, too, because we were just going down Maple Road which is where our office was and I said to my husband, oh that used to be the Handleman Company. That came from Woodward out there and that’s all closed up. Things have changed. Even that they were more books and printed material so that’s like Internet now so that’s all gone and changed, too. But now, again, so much when we come down here and drive around Woodward and come by Michigan Avenue, every time we come, I swear, it’s like, oh this is new and look at that and oh that looks nice and oh wow! It’s getting exciting for us, too, even at this age. It’s like wow-ee. And all the young people coming. It’s wonderful, just wonderful.
BB: Is there any other stories or things that you remember about your time here in Detroit or about the event at all?
JW: No, not really. No, and then like I say, everything just kind of went back, meshed back and I don’t think we even, cause again, when we would come down here, never got back, other than when he was going to Wayne. Then you could still see remnants after, later. Burned out things and kind of like it is now where you see so many buildings that why don’t they tear that down? Off of Cass, but Cass is picking up, too, because we come to the DSO [Detroit Symphony Orchestra] because we’ve got season tickets there. So we take Cass to get back down downtown and that’s looking good, too, so thumbs up to all that. But no, I don’t think there’s anything else. That’s why I said I didn’t know if what I had to say was –
BB: No, it was good.
JW: Good. Alright, good.
BB: So, thank you so much JoAnne for sitting down with us. We really do appreciate it and if you do, by chance, think of anything afterwards, I did give you my card. Thank you.
JW: And now that I know that you’re doing this and I saw in the paper it said that you could even be doing things into next year.